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The Sound of Success - One Latvian's innovative spirit

Guests in Soviet hotels used to turn the music up loud if they wanted a private conversation, and a discovery a few years ago proved that this paranoia was justified. Workers doing up the posh RÄ«dzene Hotel in the Latvian capital came across a listening post connected by miles of cables to hidden microphones in the rooms.

Fortunately, this is not the end of the story about Latvia and recording devices. Blue Microphones is a small firm whose products have earned such a high reputation in just over a decade that stars like Sting use them. And although its headquarters is in California, Blue stands for "Baltic Latvia Universal Electronics", and one of its leading lights is from Riga.

There was a bit of Cold War cloak-and-dagger in the early life of Mārtiņš Saulespurens, Blue's Director of Research and Development. Thanks to multilingual and musical parents, an excellent English teacher schooled in prewar Latvia and regular listening to Voice of America jazz programs, Saulespurens probably knew more about the wider world than the average Soviet citizen. While still at high school in the early 1960s, he wrote letters to Western audio magazines seeking to contact people and exchange records. A correspondence began with several foreigners, one of whom happened to be a relative of the fiercely anti-communist American politician Barry Goldwater.

Not surprisingly, this aroused the interest of the KGB. Saulespurens says he played a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, who didn't like his activities, but couldn't ban them outright because the Soviet Union wanted to pretend that its citizens were free. But he is modest about being described as brave.

"I wouldn't say I'm fearless, but I am quite canny," he said.

For the next 20 years he worked as a sound engineer at the Latvian Music Academy. When the Iron Curtain started crumbling, he made a trip to the United States in 1988 to meet his contacts on the other side. He was eventually introduced to Skipper Wise, an American musician and producer, and the pair formed a mutually beneficial partnership: Wise, now the company's president, had a detailed knowledge of what performers needed from recording equipment, and Saulespurens supplied the technical know-how.

They came together at a time when audio technology had reached a dead end. Microphones captured everything perfectly, but the result lacked reality and was like listening to music made in a laboratory. Hunting for a more authentic sound, many people in the music industry started using German and Austrian mikes from the 1940s and 1950s, and Blue started out by restoring equipment from that era. Ironically, because Soviet film studios had bought up large quantities of Western microphones from that era and then stopped adopting the latest technology, Saulespurens' background enabled him to take advantage of the new trends. The company then moved into producing modern mikes possessing the properties of the old ones; its first model, named Bottle, was also a visual copy of a classic German model. This was followed by specialist mikes such as Dragonflyfor recording specific instruments and voices.

The firm made a conscious decision to initially make top-of-the-range models in order to gain a reputation for quality, but more recently it has shifted from just niche products to mass- produced mikes with USB access for computers. Saulespurens says that thanks to digital technology, the cost of professional-level recording equipment has declined ten-fold in the last 15 years, so that amateurs can now obtain quality which was previously available only in studios. So Blue has begun producing much less expensive models such as Snowball, which is available in the US for under $100. An upcoming device called Snowflakewill be even cheaper.

Blue Microphones has won many international awards and received glowing reviews from audio experts. But unfortunately, this is not the dawn of the new Latvian economy. Several years ago the firm was forced to abandon production of lower priced microphones in the country, due to high costs compared with China and an ugly dispute with a local manufacturer over ownership rights. Saulespurens despairs at the business ethics in his native country and the callous disregard shown by successive governments for small and medium enterprises.

"There is not a fertile soil here for SMEs," he said. "Hewlett Packard started in an American garage, and it's the same thing with a company starting in a Latvian shack – to become big, you have to start out small".

Despite this, Bottlemikes, of which five to ten are made every month, are still produced by a small team of engineers in Riga. According to Saulespurens this will not change in the future, so at least a small portion of this innovative business is physically "Made in Latvia".

Saulespurens himself is now 64 years old, and divides his time equally between the US and Latvia, where his family still lives. But he has no plans to retire.

"The meaning of life is to keep moving and to keep the creative process flowing," he said. "My mission is to open people's ears and to help them hear".

For more information about Blue Microphones, see www.bluemic.com.

By Philip Birzulis